Friday, February 2, 2024

The Rise and Fall: Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord

"Presentation of Jesus in the Temple" (detail), Francesco Vittore Carpaccio, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. 

“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Lk 2: 34-35

The words of Simeon, that we hear in the Gospel today, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, are often understood as referring to the political, worldly, or material, fall of “many in Israel” – this could refer to the socio-political elite of the times, Herod, Pilate, the Temple elite. Indeed, some commentators point out that the sense of this text is similar to the verse from the Magnificat, that hymn of Our Lady, where she sings that “He [i.e. God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1: 52).

However, as I reflected on Simeon’s words this popular understanding of the text was tempered by Our Lord’s own revelation of Himself and His mission: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17), or in the Gospel of Luke, the very Gospel where we encounter the meeting between Simeon and the Holy Family; “for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.”

So now, if Our Lord Himself suggests that He did not come to pull people down, but pull us up, to refine and purify us, as we read in the first reading from the Prophet Malachi, how are we to make sense of these words of Simeon, the words of Our Lady in the Magnificat, and reconcile them with the words of Our Lord Himself?

We do so by having regard to the fact that one of the central aspects of this feast is to highlight the meekness, and humility, of God. The point of the presentation (i.e. the appearance of the woman in the Temple) in the Mosaic law was that the child had to be redeemed, and the woman, who was considered impure after having given birth, had to be purified.  We have the incredible situation, here therefore, where both the Son of God  imagine the Redeemer of the world Himself has to be redeemed!  and His Holy Mother, herself born without sin, submit themselves before earthly authorities to fulfil the law in force – that their impurity and assumed sinfulness be corrected through sacrifice.

There is, also, another dimension, Christ even as infant, for having taken flesh, also takes on the sinful condition of humanity. Regard these words from the Apostle Paul in the second letter to the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5: 21), or his words from that beautiful canticle in the letter to the Phillipians (2:6-8):

though he was in the form of God,
    [he] did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

The point of this feast is about the humility of God, and the revelation of the highly illogical idea that it is through the humbling of ourselves, through our embrace of meekness – to be meek is to submit ourselves to the will of God, even when that submission puts us in conflict with the world, conflict even to the point of death – it is through our meekness to the will of God and it has to be stressed that the virtues of meekness and humility are always in reference not to worldly authorities and powers but to God alone – that that we are raised, i.e. we grow in dignity. This salvific logic has been well-understood by our Holy Mother the Church. Consider, for a moment the Collect from the feast of St. Agnes that we celebrated just a few days ago: “O Almighty and everlasting God, you choose the weak things of the world to confound the strong.”

But perhaps precisely because it is a salvific logic, and not of this world that the world finds it difficult to appreciate, understand, or follow it. It is in this sense that Christ will be the sign that will be contradicted, precisely because this most Christian of logics is so difficult, or confounding, for the world to understand, it is the stumbling over this stone – that the builders rejected – that will reveal the thoughts of our hearts – offering us an opportunity to evaluate ourselves.

I leave you, therefore, with the counsel from St. James “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:10).

Laudetur Jesus Christus, [semper laudetur].

(A version of this homily was first preached at the Pontificio Collegio Beda on 2 Feb 2024).

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